Sunday, March 22, 2015

Deadly streams -- Part 4 (Brookville's pain)

Thanks: Thomas Keesling collection
An ironic detail that can easily be overlooked in the face of the horrendous flood of 1913 is that the community this blog is intended to address actually was scarcely affected.

Fairfield, serenely perched on the East Fork of the Whitewater River, was never threatened by the incredible forces of the raging streams that burst out of their banks over much of the Midwest.

Downstream, in Brookville, the residents would fare far worse. In other sections of the country, the disaster was maddening and deadly. An estimated 650 died in the flooding, nearly 400 of them in Ohio. Central Indiana, including Indianapolis, also recorded significant loss of life. The numbers are not accurate enough to matter.

This entry deals with how Brookville was affected. Later on, some interesting anecdotes about the flood and why it ranks as one of the country's worst calamities. (The Johnstown, Pa., dam rupture and flood of 1889 took more than 2,200 lives.)

August Reifel's 1915 history, produced only two years after the flood, paints a scary scenario:

March 25, 1913

"Hundreds and thousands of dollars’ worth of property was destroyed and fifteen lives lost. Six hundred people in Brookville were rendered homeless and scores of dwellings swept away and torn to pieces. The flood was the result of many days’ rain, and every rivulet and creek in the valley was a roaring torrent, which went sweeping down the two branches of the Whitewater River.

"The heaviest blow was sustained at Brookville, where the two streams unite. Both valleys — that of the East fork and West fork — were submerged in many feet of water. At the depot and paper mills the water was fully 20 feet above the tracks.

"The earliest intimation of danger was soon after midnight on Monday and about two o’clock a.m. the scenes in Brookville were beyond description. The electric light plant was under water and all lights were put out, so that lanterns had to be brought into use by the hundreds of people who had been startled by the shrill steam whistles and the clanging of church bells.

"People in the flats were warned and as fast as possible conveyed to safe places, while their property was swept away and lost forever.

"When daylight came, the scene was one of desolation. The only land to be seen in all the valley part of town was a narrow strip from the Christian Church to the old bank building. Men and women were seen perched on housetops, waving distress signals from windows and clinging to wreckage.

"The water continued to rise until it reached its climax on Tuesday morning at nine o’clock, when it reached a point 10 feet higher than any previous flood record."

In Brookville, the rain continued. The heavy downpour dumped more water into the swollen rivers, sending it downstream to the bulging Miami, which couldn't take it. the water continued to rise.

"The greatest loss to property in the county was its bridges. The railroad bridges at Laurel and Brookville, the one over Salt Creek, the one over Duck Creek, at Metamora, the paper mill bridge at Brookville, and old Stringer Ford Bridge and the “Old White Bridge,” and the new concrete bridge. Also the bridge at New Trenton,  and those over the Whitewater and Big Cedar rivers in the southern portion of the county were swept from their abutments."

Upstream in Fairfield, the old wooden covered bridge stood its ground and remained in place until 1973 when vandals burned it.

Not everyone was saved, Reifel reports.

"Perhaps the saddest incident was the drowning of the entire John A. Fries family and (those) of Mr. Fries’ mother’s home, which stood close by her son’s, both in Stavetown, on the flats to the south of town. This is the old brick and tile district, where for so many years these families had lived in two old landmarks, both of which were swept away. The hours at which these houses were washed away is not known, but sometime after midnight. In these two homes all eight of the occupants were drowned."

The flood displaced about 40 percent of Brookville's residents, or about 850 people. Of the 15 who died, one body was not recovered.

So, what caused this horrific event? The term we use today is "perfect storm." Anything that could possibly go wrong, did.

In Part 5, some of that will be explored.

Disclaimer: I use photos somewhat indiscriminately to illustrate these entries. After awhile, the scope of the tragedy becomes overwhelming. A photograph of a disaster did not live the disaster. It's interesting to observe these events and evoke some form of shock or passive dismay. Reality is much different. These were people and places, even those who were affected many years later for coincidentally connected reasons. -- John

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